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Grading Creative Work

Sunday, 18. May 2014 18:40

Because I teach theatre in an academic environment, at least twice a year I am faced with the problem of grading creative work. Some would question the efficacy of grades in an arts course at all. This is why many prefer to teach workshops, or non-academic arts courses where grades don’t exist. The teacher, or leader, or facilitator does a critique of the work, sometimes involving others, sometimes not, and that is all. No grades are assigned. It is likely that there is no permanent record of the evaluation of the work done. In some of these workshop situations, there is no evaluation at all; rather the leader offers guidance and suggestions about where to take the work and what explorations the artist might make.

So why do grades? Well, the academic system requires it. We must evaluate and record our students’ accomplishments and failures. It turns out, that although they may say otherwise, students require it as well (see below).

Unfortunately, unless one has developed an immensely sophisticated method of grading, those letters or numbers reflect only what was done on a particular assignment on a particular day. And while that may correspond with reality, the likelihood is very rare. No matter how hard we try, most grading systems do not take into account growth and development; nor can they fully represent real quality of the process involved to produce the work. And sometimes, because of work not done, the final grade bears no relation at all to the student’s ability to create artistically.

My undergraduate acting professor developed a way to get around these problems and keep his administration happy. At the beginning of the course, he offered the class a choice between the traditional five-letter grading system and the B/F system. If one did the work and made an honest attempt, no matter how ill or how well, one would make a B. If one did not, one would fail; there were no A, C, or D grades. Unanimity was required for implementation of the B/F system, and my class chose it without hesitation. The pressure to “make a grade” was instantly removed. And the system did not prevent those who wanted to do A work from doing so; it did, however, force them to seek excellence for itself, and not for some end-of-term reward. It was a great system so far as I was concerned. There was never any doubt about the quality of work that we were actually doing because of the critiques and guidance, but none of us were worried about grades.

Because I had such appreciation for the freedom that the B/F system offered, for the first several years that I taught acting, I offered the same choice to my classes. All rejected it, sometimes by huge margins.

And perhaps they were right; perhaps the B/F system belongs to a different, more idealistic world. The fact of the matter is that once the artist is working, whatever art he/she makes will be evaluated, sometimes not too kindly. So not evaluating creative work seems, to me, a disservice to the student. The student needs to know what others, particularly those who have training and experience in the field, think of his/her work. This is not to suggest that the student necessarily modify his/her work to satisfy the public. Rather it is to prepare the student for the kind of reception his/her work might garner in the arts marketplace; that is necessary survival intelligence and information that many students need. Some of the students who walk into my acting class having been told for years that they are great, only to discover in the crucible of the college classroom that they have been misled. Some may not have the talent they thought they had; some believe that because they have talent, work is not necessary; some have an inflated perception of the talent they do have. Others, because of insecurity and other issues, consistently underestimate their skills.

So, for any of a number of reasons, students in the arts must be evaluated. And in academia, these evaluations must be distilled into letter grades. It is better that these students go ahead and learn that constant evaluation is part of the working artist’s life. That whether it is from a critic, a peer, or the public, everyone who sees their work will have an opinion, and in some cases, those opinions can turn into jobs or commissions or not.

Category:Creativity, Education | Comments (1) | Author:

Talent is Not Enough

Sunday, 9. February 2014 23:34

In talking with a former student about a paying gig she had just booked, I mentioned her talent, among other things. She replied, “Talent is nothing if you weren’t taught how to access it and use it.” She’s right, of course, but I had never thought about it in exactly those terms.

Those who teach in the arts beyond the secondary level are aware that talent by itself is not enough. This often comes as a surprise to our students, who have been told since they were able to perform in whatever art they excel how talented they were and how that would insure success as they grew to adulthood. They were misinformed, although probably with the best intentions.

Parents, with few exceptions, have no frame of reference for talent. They know only that their progeny excel at some art or the other and that praise is being heaped on their child by teachers and friends, and so, because they are proud, they join the party. The problem comes when the child develops the expectation of success based on the responses they have garnered in the past. At the very least, they need to memorize that disclaimer that comes on all investment portfolios: “past performance does not guarantee future results.” It doesn’t.

So the children go to high school and join a small pool of other talented peers and form their own clique, the members of which get all the leads in the plays, win all the art prizes, and continue to impress parents and friends. All are encouraged to continue developing their art.

Then they get to college, where they are in class with 25 others who are equally talented, and they begin to realize that they may not be all that special after all. This notion comes home with a vengeance when they realize that they and the other 25 members of their class are really the underclass, that there are three more years of equally talented and more experienced artists ahead of them, and on top of that are the smaller percentage of those who are graduate students. It should be obvious that no matter how much talent each individual has, the rewards are fewer than the number of people in the room, so, if they are to excel, they will have to learn to access and use the talent they have and then go beyond that.

Still, it takes some counseling and convincing to persuade these students that talent is not enough. Not only must they learn how to use their talents, they must combine that with a willingness to work. Stephen King was exactly right when he said, “Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.” King is not the only person who has voiced this opinion. One can read similar quotations by people as diverse as Andrew Carnegie, Irving Stone, Aleister Crowley, Lou Holtz, Émile Zola, and Kurt Vonnegut.

And sometimes even talent and hard work are not enough. Success, however, you define it, is elusive, and for some seems to remain just out of reach. And although there are no guarantees, there is no question that we have a far better chance with talent and hard work than with either alone. And there is no question that the art we produce will be better than if we tried to rely on talent alone.

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Learn to Sing!

Sunday, 22. December 2013 23:01

“I don’t sing” is a statement that I hear all the time from beginning actors. They state it as if it were an option when it’s really the equivalent of an architect saying, “I don’t do math,” or a photographer saying, “I don’t need to know lighting.” Singing is a basic skill of the acting trade just like articulation, stage movement, or the ability to used dialects and accents.

There are a number of reasons students say they don’t sing, but usually they resolve themselves to three: fear, the belief that to learn would be too difficult, and the notion that actors who do not sing are somehow more pure than those who do. This latter derives, of course, from the idea that the musical is an inferior form of theatre. The musical’s position in the theatre hierarchy aside, the fact is that many “straight” shows require that an actor sing. Even voice actors will often find themselves having to sing.

The perception of difficulty often goes unvoiced. Rather, some other excuse is put forward, such as “I can’t.”

Fear needs no explication, except to note that actors, particularly young, untrained ones have a fear of singing equal to or worse than most people’s fear of public speaking.

In any case, the only reasonable response is, “then learn.” Take voice lessons—every week, until you can sing or until the third voice instructor in a row dismisses you as completely hopeless. It may, indeed, be difficult, but certainly not impossible. You may not be able to sing the lead in a musical as the result of lessons, but you can improve vocally and that can only be a good thing.

Additionally, voice lessons not only improve the singing voice, they improve the speaking voice as well, so it’s a double win. And the actor gets to develop two basic skills for the price of one.

“I can’t sing,” when not an excuse, is a different matter. That’s about ability, albeit self-assessed, and for that the answer is the same: learn, and for all of the same reasons. And be aware that many working actors continue to take voice lessons even after they have improved their abilities so that they can, upon request, sing whatever song the role requires.

It’s the same with any art. We will sometimes refuse to learn certain skills or techniques that have the potential for improving our work in some way or another. We tell ourselves that that’s something we “don’t do” or “can’t do.” And we mean exactly the same thing that young actors do: it’s something we are afraid of or something that looks too difficult or something we mistakenly think will dilute the sincerity of our work. So, often in the pose of artistic snobbery, we limit ourselves.

There is no legitimate reason that we should not develop any and every tool we can. As we grow as artists, many of us find ourselves moving in directions that we did not anticipate and those skills we thought “ancillary” become not only useful but necessary.

So it may turn out that the skill that we didn’t want to learn is exactly the skill, perhaps in combination with others, that allows us to create our best work. Few of us end where we were aiming when we set out, and we may find that we’re really glad that we learned to sing somewhere along the way.

Category:Creativity, Education, Theatre | Comment (0) | Author:

Artist Statements Revisited

Sunday, 2. June 2013 23:55

A friend of mine teaches an art course called “Professional Practices.” One of the topics covered in the course is how to write a good artist statement. Now I have not been friendly toward such statements in the past, finding them an occasion for pretension and grandiosity, often devolving into meaningless “art-speak.” Additionally, they can be superfluous—if the art is doing its job properly. But a recent conversation with this man has caused me to reevaluate my thinking. He suggested that there exist practical reasons for an artist statement.

One thing he pointed out was that artist statements are useful in preparing to talk about your art. The week before, he had himself, while serving on a committee interviewing people for the chairmanship of his department, been asked about his art (which was not present). Had he not previously developed an artist statement, he might well have been thought inept by his future boss.

Interestingly, at a party that same night, I was asked the same question. It was a simple question from one artist to another (again our work was not present), but my lack of preparation caused me to be less articulate than I might have been.

Still, there are many really awful statements out there. How to avoid creating one of those? Here is my friend’s advice:

  • Explain what your art is about, or, alternatively, what you are about as an artist.
  • Make it short, but not terse. A single page is a good goal.
  • Be direct.
  • Be honest.
  • Be yourself.
  • Avoid art-speak.
  • Tailor your statement to the situation. Is it for a show, for a web page, for your own use, or to prepare you to talk about what you do either in a formal or informal situation? Each use demands a slightly different approach and focus.
  • Remember, this is a dynamic document. It should change when your work does. It is simply a statement of where you are artistically at a single moment in time, not a manifesto.

The artist statement, carefully thought out, can not only be used to explain you and your art to others, but can be used to explain you and your art to yourself. And many of us can benefit from such an exercise. This, to me seems to be the real value of such a statement. The act of writing forces you to verbalize what you are about as an artist. That, in turn, forces you to think about your art in ways that must be expressed in words. Many of us have not done this, or have not done it honestly, simply because it is difficult and unnecessary—or so we thought. As I—among others—have been fond of saying, if words could express it, there would be no need for the art; one could simply write an essay.

Remember that an artist statement may not necessarily apply to all art you do.  For example, the goals and approaches for my photography are far different from the aims and methodology for my theatre work. So if you do several kinds of art, you may discover that they may not be aligned and so will require a separate statement for each.

If you approach the artist statement using the guidelines above, it is not a simple task. It requires thought and self-examination. To my surprise, I am finding the process very useful. The necessity of putting my artistic intentions into words has served to concentrate my focus and clarify my creative goals in a way that I have never before experienced. I have no idea whether anyone except me will ever see the statement. That is not important; what is important is that the process of writing has honed my objectives as an artist and served to focus my creativity. I find myself thinking about my work differently—for the better. You may too.

Category:Creativity, Education | Comments (3) | Author:

Forget Plan B

Sunday, 19. May 2013 23:52

Because I wanted to know, I went back to the student who wanted to live an artistic life and asked what the phrase “live an artistic life” meant to him.  After a bit of thought, he said that it meant that he wanted to support himself by doing his art.

A colleague to whom I related this brief story said, “That’s a rather romantic view, don’t you think? He should learn to swing a hammer.” She went on to say that the most talented person she knows has difficulty supporting himself with his art (He is an actor.) and has had to pick up a hammer from time to time in order to eat. Her suggestion was that, due to its “romantic” nature, the goal is somehow less achievable. Perhaps it would be better if the student were to have a “practical” backup plan.

This is an idea that I hear often. Parents often want their children in the arts to have a “Plan B,” something to “fall back on.” Of course, with today’s employment situation, training in any discipline carries no guarantee of employment, so the arts are probably as stable as anything else and can be excellent training for a number of fields.

But because the above-mentioned actor, who is very talented, is so intent upon practicing his art, he has picked up hammers, and screw-guns, and pipeline wrenches, and bar towels, and any number of other tools that would allow him to have live-on money when acting opportunity was not available. He will do almost anything in order to continue pursuing his art.

Wanting to live by artistic means may be a romantic goal, but it is, nonetheless, a goal, and often a very powerful one.  The actor mentioned above once said that his life was about acting and for him there could be no Plan B. I have also heard other acting coaches tell students that if they ever considered another occupation after they discovered acting, then they should go do that because it will be kinder to them than acting, and the fact that they considered something else indicates that they do not have the single-mindedness that is required to succeed in the theatre.

So too may the student. In subsequent conversations, he has indicated that while supporting himself with his art is his goal, he is willing to do whatever is necessary to continue to do his art. His art is important to him; it is, I think, what gives his life meaning. For him, just as with the actor, art is not simply a choice; it is a necessity. So it is with many of us to a greater or lesser extent.

If this is who you are, it ceases to be a question of whether you can support yourself by doing art, but rather how you can support yourself in order to do art. You may be one of the ones who is fortunate enough to figure out how to make the kind of art you want to do pay for itself and your food, but whether you will actually do art is never a question.

And if you want to succeed in any phase of art, no matter how you define it or describe it, you don’t want a Plan B; it will only be a distraction. Debbie Millman advises much the same thing in her essay and speech, quoted on “Brain Pickings,” which deals with the idea of choosing between that which is realistic and feasible and that which seems unattainable:  “Do what you love, and don’t stop until you get what you love. Work as hard as you can, imagine immensities, don’t compromise, and don’t waste time.” Forget Plan B.

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The Necessity of Fundamentals

Monday, 25. March 2013 1:31

While not a photographer himself, the chairman of the art department where I teach is adamant that the first courses in photography be done with analog cameras, black and white film and chemical darkroom processes. When I questioned him about this, he informed me that the departmental approach to photography would stay the same so long as he was chairman. This is an interesting position, given that a number of major universities have phased out their chemical darkrooms, and along with them, basic courses in analog photography.

And even though, for a number of reasons, I am not sure that I agree with his position, I understand the rationale. This is not a man who would insist that courses be taught this way because “it has always been that way.” Rather, it is because he believes that those analog/chemical courses teach skills that are necessary to a full understanding of the art and craft of photography. His department is in the business of teaching fundamentals.

This is exactly the same business that the drama department is in. It is our firm belief that solid fundamentals are necessary to success in theatre; the art chairman believes the same thing of visual and plastic arts. It is true of all arts. I don’t know a single choreographer, for example, who does not stress fundamentals; the same is true of musicians. The list is comprehensive.

We should build on solid basics in any art, and those basics should be broad. It is, in my opinion, impossible to be a good artist without some knowledge outside of our immediate specialties. Our department demands, for example, that drama students take courses not only in the areas that are of immediate interest to them, but in other areas as well. So technicians attend acting classes, and actors sit, sometimes uncomfortably, in technical theatre classes. Everybody builds and paints and sews and works on productions. Such broad exposure builds respect for those who work in other areas—an essential in a collaborative art, and very often the knowledge is put to good use. Occasionally, someone will discover an area with which he/she was formerly unfamiliar and decide that that is where they really ought to concentrate. Without exposure to the basics in all areas, these students would have no basis for such a decision.

Sadly, many artists do not see strong fundamentals as a necessity. They are not quite sure what an f-stop is. They only know one style of acting. They can’t remember all of the principles of design. Part of color theory is a little hazy. Getting exposure exactly right becomes a thing of chance.  They are convinced that there is no real need to learn stage directions. They can’t pick out a tune on a keyboard. The precise names of things elude them. Mastery of certain tools and techniques is beyond them. They are unconcerned with the very thing that holds them back: incomplete knowledge of basics. Unfortunately, without solid fundamentals, artists find it difficult to do really excellent work consistently, broaden their repertoires, or even communicate with other artists.

Strong fundamentals, like any solid base, give the artist a foundation to support his/her imaginative work without having to worry about the underpinnings. This then allows the artist the freedom to create and develop. Without strong basics, the artist is restricted and is likely to produce a very narrow range of work.

The same applies to any art. The more media types and styles and approaches we know, the better able we are to make the decisions necessary to create our art. The stronger our foundation, the higher the structure we can build on it. The more we know about the theory and history of our arts, the better able we are to put our own work in perspective. And such knowledge allows us to avoid wasting time doing work that has already been done, and allows us rather to build upon the work of those who have gone before. And such knowledge can give us freedom to move forward on our own. As a friend of mine said recently, “you can’t consciously break the rules unless you know what the rules are.

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Why Art Really Matters

Monday, 20. August 2012 0:14

Last week’s post dwelt upon the need for artists to work within a very imperfect system. As I thought about it further, I realized not only that art should matter, but that art does matter, perhaps not the way Hazel Dooney wants it to, or as much as we think it should, but it does matter right now, even in our very imperfect world—in lots of ways.

The arts are good for business. For example, the arts bring consumers to downtown areas. Just google “art helps downtowns” and you can read article after article about how this event or that production boosted downtown businesses. The arts are significant for other businesses as well. The National Governors Association in a 2012 study entitled “New Engines of Growth” has recognized the impact of the arts and culture on economic development and has suggested ways to incorporate the arts, culture, and creative businesses into economic development plans.

Those plans take into account that employers are interested in talented people with creative abilities, particularly for higher-level positions, and creativity is something one learns most easily by being associated with the arts. Moreover, a creative, cultural environment helps attract and retain those people, which opens the door for even more creative employment.

And arts employment is significant. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, as of 2009, 2.1 million people in the United States were artists. By anybody’s standards, that is a lot. You should also be aware that that number includes only actors, announcers, architects, fine artists, art directors, animators, dancers, choreographers, designers, other entertainers, musicians, photographers, producers, directors, writers, authors. The list does not include a number of other occupations which depend upon the arts and artists for survival: agents, gallerists, curators, box-office staff, press agents, publicists, auction-house employees, and technicians, just to name a few.

Another aspect of the business-art partnership is that companies purchase art. “Commercial art,” you say. “That’s not real art.” It is real, and it is art. Just ask the artists who made it.  Yes, there is some factory-manufactured stuff hanging on walls and decorating reception areas, but the more successful and high-end the business, the better the art that they display. And it’s not just prints and knock-offs. Much of it is real, artist-made one-of-a-kind or limited edition art.

And those are just some of the economic reasons why art really matters. There are other reasons as well, just as important as economics. Some would say more important.

Studies link arts instruction with higher IQ scores and higher intelligence in children. Research “shows tight correlations between artistic endeavors and cognitive abilities.” Essentially, “performance or practice of any of the art forms” can “influence cognition, including attention and IQ.” And this finding is confirmed by a number of studies.

Art not only improves cognition in children, but can improve adult brains as well. It can often do this by presenting us with problems in ethics, philosophy, or design to consider.

But perhaps the biggest reason that art really matters is in its ability to enrich our lives by fostering empathy and understanding, helping us see connections, and putting us in touch with ourselves and the rest of the world. As the late Robert Hughes said, “The basic project of art is always to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and its occasional nastiness, not through argument but through feeling, and then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you, and in this way pass from feeling to meaning.”

Category:Audience, Education, Marketing | Comment (0) | Author:

Those Who Can…

Sunday, 3. June 2012 23:54

You hear a number of students in the arts declare that if their plans don’t go as well as they hope, they can always fall back on teaching. In all fairness, some students target teaching from the very onset, but most think of it as a backup plan. Having a backup plan makes these young people feel more secure, and parents, particularly those who are not involved with the arts, love backup plans because they seem “practical.”

When I hear students talking about “falling back on teaching,” I just nod and change the subject back to the primary goal, whatever that may be. I do this for two reasons: The first is that having a backup plan is one of the ways to not get where you’re going. I know a Shakespearean actor, a former student, in fact, who says that having a backup plan is the worst possible strategy for success. I don’t know if I would go that far, but he does make a valid point.

The second reason is that most students are not aware that teaching requires an entirely different set of skills from making art. To be a good teacher in one of the arts, you have to know not only the skills, insights, methodology of doing the art but be able to communicate those things to students. And, as I mentioned last week, you also have to be adept at asking questions and making suggestions that help the student make choices, think, and explore the possibility of a different way of looking at the subject to yield a different, more satisfying result.

And, of course, there is no real correlation between the ability to create excellent art and the ability to teach others to do likewise. A number of artists have no idea how they do what they do, and could not think about explaining to someone else how to do it. Still they produce excellent work. Similarly, a number of teachers in the arts are well aware of the skill, techniques, and attitudes necessary to produce outstanding art, but are not able or willing to do this themselves. Yet they are successful in aiding their students in advancing their art.

This is not to say that there is no one who not only produces excellent art, but is able to teach effectively as well. There certainly are those who have both skill sets and talent in both areas, but they are rare.

Those artist/teachers who are able to find that balance and are successful at both have, I think, the ability to jump back and forth between the worlds of teaching and creating, realizing that, although there is much shared information, the two activities are very, very different and require very different approaches and different ways of thinking.

Both activities take a considerable investment of time if they are to be done right, and to do both well is difficult—and unnecessary. What is necessary is the teacher’s desire and ability to pass along skills, and, perhaps as important, the ability to encourage and inspire students to grow and develop in their own directions, capitalizing on their own unique talents, developing their own artistic vision.

Helping students realize their artistic potential is not a backup profession; it is rather another legitimate vocation in the world of art. And for many of us, a very important vocation—just as important as producing art.

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Artistic Purpose: Everyone’s Is Different

Sunday, 27. May 2012 23:42

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to interact with interviewers, curators, and other artists at a reception and after-party for a show in which I had a piece. Only after I had read the article that resulted from one set of interviews did I rethink the conversations with those that I had met. It seems that a significant number of people came with the idea that those who make art make it for one predetermined reason, although that reason seems to vary from person to person.

This realization supplied an explanation for the mismatch I felt with one of the interviewers. We were coming from two entirely different places with regard to the reason for the origin of an artwork, and I suspect, the functions of art as well. This caused me to become curious as to how someone would develop a preconception of artistic purpose.

My guess is that this predetermination is the result of being “educated” in “what to look for in art.” Many take art classes (or acting classes, or dance classes, or sculpture classes, or photography classes), and often the instructor will ask what the work is about, and the student is expected to explain his/her work—or the work in question— to the satisfaction of the instructor and the class. Students quickly learn what plays in terms of explanation and what falls short, given the expectations of those in the room.

Some come to believe that this is a proper way to discuss art. As a result of these discussions some students change the way they think about art and creativity. Some would argue that changing the way you think about what you create is a good thing. However, if the result is that you mold your work into someone else’s idea of what constitutes good art or the appropriate reasons for creating art, are you still an original voice, or just a parrot?

The best teachers I know in all artistic disciplines are very careful to separate giving students information or craft skills and helping students explore creativity. Never do they expect students to meet certain expectation in terms of what the work is about. They are, however, quite adept at asking question that get the student to make choices, to think, to explore in his/her own mind if a different way of looking at the subject would yield a different, more satisfying result. The process is one of encouragement and guidance.

Re-reading and rethinking confirmed my belief that those who are in the arts, those who create, do so for very personal, if not private—and very different—reasons. Some are exploring relationships. Some are commenting on society. Some are reacting to politics. Some are investigating psychological concepts. Some are expressing inward thoughts and feelings so deep that words are inadequate. Some are trying to find out who they are. Some are making things to sell. Some are using art to relax. Some are creating pieces that they hope will grace museum walls and floors.  Some are just experiencing the joy of creation. Some are compelled to create.

This list is practically endless. There are as many reasons for creating art as there are artists. And the reasons are dynamic; they can change and evolve as an artist develops and grows. And hardly ever do they meet someone else’s expectations.

So when you look at a piece of art, try to put aside your own notions of why art is created. You have no way to know what was in the artist’s mind when he/she created the work; you have only your own training and experience. You might try to figure it out based on the work. But to do that honestly, you have to interact with the art as it exists, and take away what it gives you.

Category:Audience, Education, Presentation | Comment (0) | Author:

Yes, Education Can Help You Appreciate Art

Monday, 27. February 2012 0:53

A friend of mine teaches high school English. This past week she was teaching poetry and had a student who was rather vocal about the silliness of poetry and how it was hard to read and why would you want to anyway. She asked him to read a part of a poem aloud and then suggested that he read to the punctuation rather than to the end of the line.  He did so. She said that she could literally see the light bulb going off. His assessment? “It makes so much more sense when you read it that way.” Now he got it. Poetry had become cool. It would never have been so without that small amount of education.

Having even a small amount of education about a work of art is not absolutely necessary for appreciation. The unlettered serf during the middle ages could appreciate a cathedral because of its size and grandeur, but think how much more there is to appreciate once you have educated yourself beyond “big and impressive.” If you know something of architecture, of art, of religious iconography, the architectural work can speak to you on more levels. And if you know even more, it is likely that it can speak to you on many more levels.

But do you really have to know something about the medium itself to appreciate the work? It may not be absolutely necessary, but it doesn’t hurt. I sometimes teach a course in the development of the motion picture. More than one student has told me after they completed the course that it changed the way they look at movies. Now that they have some idea about how film is put together and some background, they have developed a different perspective that allows them an appreciation that is both deeper and broader.

And what is true for poetry and architecture and film is also true for any art. The more knowledgeable you are about cultural history and art, and perhaps aesthetics, the better able are you to appreciate a work on more than the superficial level.

And, of course, if you are an artist, the more you know, the more layered and complex you can make your work, even if that occurs on a subconscious level. Just as mastery of the techniques of your medium allow you to create more complicated, more challenging works, so general knowledge gives you more to draw from and informs your work, allowing it to have a richness of meaning and operate on multiple levels at once.

Essentially, the more you know, the more you can do and the more you can enjoy—or not: the more you know the easier it is to spot crap. And that, even though it might reduce your enjoyment of certain work, is wholly positive. Artistic value is often assigned by what the work brings at auction or in the marketplace, and many times what passes for “good art” is really just one-dimensional junk.

You don’t have to have a degree in art either to make good art or enjoy it fully. The student in the opening story didn’t need a year’s study in poesy to appreciate a poem, just a better way to approach it. Having knowledge can help you better understand a piece of art.

The next step, of course, is the development of taste.

 

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